Poised and unflappable under the most trying circumstances, Mighty Duck defenseman Kurt Sauer let himself relax for a moment Sunday and be the kid he truly is.
Sauer, the rookie with the mature approach to life and to the game he plays for a living, grinned from ear to ear after scoring his first NHL goal, a 35-foot blast that was instrumental in carrying the Ducks to a 4-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. "Crazy," he said, shaking his head. "I was just trying to get as much wood on it as I could. I didn't have time to think. Maybe that was good."
His goal, combined with a one-goal, two-assist effort by Sammy Pahlsson and Jean-Sebastien Giguere's confident goaltending, typified what has transformed the Ducks from losers into a playoff team in one short but eventful season.
A goal each by Sauer, the 6-foot-3, 219-pound behemoth known for his defense, and fellow rookie Stanislav Chistov. A third-effort goal from Steve Rucchin, the heart of this team. A high-energy game from Pahlsson, who took his puck and went home to Sweden earlier this season but had a change of heart and returned to sweat for every kronor. Big saves from Giguere, stalwart against 40 shots and a heavily pro-Red Wing crowd at the Arrowhead Pond.
Small accomplishments, perhaps, but together they have put the Ducks in the playoffs. Maybe not mathematically, because even though they're nine points ahead of the ninth-place Predators they face a potentially bumpy road that takes them through six games in eight nights starting Wednesday. But in their minds -- and in the NHL standings -- the Ducks are in the playoffs, and they have earned it.
In praising the Red Wings Giguere called them "a team that knows how to win." The Ducks can make that claim too.
"Much more than in the beginning of the season, that's for sure," he said. "We're much more experienced in the third period. We're not as nervous with the puck. We can still improve, but there's not a long way to go. We've definitely come a long way since the beginning of the season."
No one has come a longer way than Sauer. The 22-year-old Minnesotan was picked in the third round and 88th overall in the 2000 entry draft by the Avalanche but didn't sign and was up for grabs last summer after his junior eligibility ended. Colorado bid $900,000 for him. On the recommendation of newly hired Coach Mike Babcock, who had coached Sauer for Spokane of the Western Hockey League, the Ducks bid $1.102 million.
It has been a bargain in a league where defensemen often struggle to make the transition from the high minor leagues, let alone junior hockey. And it would have been a great deal even if he hadn't scored a crucial goal Sunday, taking a pass from Pahlsson and one-timing it past Curtis Joseph in the second period for a 3-0 lead. His positional play has made him a valuable member of the Ducks' league-leading penalty-killing unit, and his ability to read and react quickly are invaluable.
Think the Avalanche, which Saturday traded two draft picks to San Jose for defenseman Bryan Marchment, rues losing him now?
"I told him a long time ago, 'You want to buy a big house,' because he's going to be here for years," Babcock said. "He's a big, strong guy, but his intelligence is a strong point. He plays simple. He's a 35-year-old man in a 20-year-old body."
Which is better than a 20-year-old head in a 35-year-old body. The Ducks have had more than a few of those.
"He's experienced beyond his years," said Keith Carney, Sauer's penalty-killing partner. "He keeps on an even keel. He's just been a great addition for us."
Sauer credited his older brother, Craig, a former football player who now sells real estate, for his NHL success.
"He always tells me, 'Shoot for the stars and you might hit the moon,' " Sauer said. "You just have to try your best and see what happens."
And sometimes you make it to the NHL and you win a regular job and you beat the Red Wings after losing to them twice in regulation time and once in overtime. "We needed these two points," Sauer said. "They were critical whether you're playing the top team or the bottom team."
If he was awed by his opponents, he didn't show it. "You start looking at the names on the back, where does that put you?" he said. "Behind.
"You've got to respect them but you can't be intimidated."
Someone saved the puck after his goal, and he posed for pictures before joining his teammates for off-ice workouts. "I'll probably just store it," he said. "I don't have a trophy case. I keep 'em in a box. I'd rather have a picture with my [2-week-old] kid and my wife on display."
Besides, he might need a place for bigger souvenirs later. "Everything is in our hands," he said. "We've played more games than the teams around us but we've done what we're supposed to do. We believe we can make the playoffs. If you're not feeling it, you won't."